The Ridings: doomed by a past mired in notoriety

17th July 2009 at 01:00
As school gates close for good, head says media fascination became a `ball and chain' which dragged it under despite recent achievements

One of Britain's most notorious schools, the Ridings, closed for good this week with 38 staff redundancies, after an eventful and often troubled 14 years.

The school was propelled into the national consciousness in autumn 1996 as the media picked up on a lethal combination of discipline problems, union strike threats and an emergency Ofsted inspection at the Halifax secondary.

Since then it has never really left the spotlight. In the intervening years, the school twice went in and out of special measures before eventually recording some impressive exam results.

But teachers this week said whatever they did was tarred by that brief but turbulent period more than a decade ago, which created a lasting stigma they blame for their school's ultimate demise.

Headteacher Stuart Todd likened his school's notoriety to having a "ball and chain around the ankles".

"When there have been any hiccups at all, the media have immediately dragged things back to 1996," he said. "But there are very many people who have been through this school who have had happy times."

The Ridings' negative image was so bad that educationists abroad still associated the school with failure, Mr Todd found. It has even put some companies off using the site following the school's closure.

A local newspaper reported last week that a demolition crew was ready to move in today, with campaigners angry that the millions spent on facilities, including a sports hall and youth and community centre, would be wasted.

But Mr Todd is confident at least some of the facilities will be saved. The same cannot be said of the 14 teacher and 24 support staff jobs that are going.

Jo Clark, a science teacher and NUT representative at the Ridings, is one of those made redundant and has worries about their future prospects.

"Some heads will think Ridings staff can cope with anything, but others will think `Ridings staff - I am not so sure'," she said. "If it was easy most would have found a job by now and only half have."

Mr Todd paid tribute to the "good staff" who had compromised their chances of finding new jobs by staying on to help the young people to whom they were committed.

They helped 65 per cent of pupils gain five or more A*-C grade GCSEs last year. Mr Todd expects that figure to rise to 80 per cent this summer, with 20 per cent of pupils getting five A*-C GCSEs, including English and maths - a measure that had flatlined at 5 per cent before he arrived.

The head attributes the success to the introduction of vocational courses in ICT, health and social care and business studies that helped to engage pupils.

A new academy will open in north Halifax next year. In the meantime, former Ridings pupils are being bussed all over the district.

Mrs Clark, who has been at the school since it opened in 1995, says the area will suffer from the closure.

"There is a huge need for a small community school there and I fear that the most vulnerable could now get lost," she said.

Praise came too late for dedicated staff

When the Ridings School opened in 1995, it was immediately handicapped by two underlying problems which helped precipitate the crisis that blew up the following year.

First, it had been created through a difficult and delayed merger between two neighbouring schools. Second, it had to contend with a place at the bottom of Halifax's uniquely hierarchical four-tier schools system.

Two selective grammar schools creamed off most of the town's top academic talent; two church secondaries admitted those with religious preferences; and high-achieving comprehensives in the neighbouring Calder Valley took middle-class Halifax children whose parents disagreed with the 11-plus and those who failed it.

The Ridings, serving some of the most deprived council estates in the country, was left with the rest.

In 1996, the blue touch paper was lit when the NASUWT union issued a threat that the majority of the Ridings teachers would walk out unless 61 pupils were excluded.

The head's resignation, special measures, temporary closure and blanket national media coverage of the "school from hell" helped heighten the crisis.

Recovery under the headship of Peter Clarke CBE led directly to New Labour's "superhead" policy for struggling schools.

It is also said to have inspired the Government's "fresh start" approach - although ironically the Ridings never really got one and retained its name. So when discipline problems re-emerged under Mr Clarke's successor Anna White - also awarded a CBE for services to the school - the story was immediately picked up in the national media.

Results remained stubbornly low, with only 14 per cent of pupils gaining five A*-C grade GCSEs in 2005, a rise of just 6 percentage points since 1996.

In October 2005, only a month after Stuart Todd replaced Ms White, Ofsted gave the school a notice to improve.

The school was back in special measures by July 2007 and later that year Calderdale Council decided it should close, blaming low pupil numbers, higher-than-average costs and the "poor standard of achievement".

In September 2008, Ofsted described the secondary as good overall with a "spectacularly effective" unit for pupils struggling with mainstream schools.

Mr Todd and his staff had done their job, but it was too late to save the Ridings.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today